(CN) — Eleven weeks after Russia invaded its neighbor, Ukraine is moving toward putting the first Russian soldiers accused of war crimes on trial, a move that will bring into clearer focus allegations of war atrocities.
The prosecution of Russian soldiers – and of Ukrainian soldiers by Russian authorities – is taking place as the war in Ukraine rages on with no end in sight. Thursday was another day of intense fighting in eastern parts of Ukraine and there were more reports of heavy shelling of locations far from the front lines. Both sides continue to report that civilians are being killed and wounded in rocket attacks.
The tensions between Russia and the West are poised to escalate further too. On Thursday, Finland’s prime minister and president said their country should apply for membership in NATO “without delay.”
Finland is expected to formally apply to join NATO soon with Sweden to quickly follow. Both countries have long cherished their status as neutral, but Russia’s assault on Ukraine has caused a big swing in public opinion in favor of protection from NATO.
The Kremlin warned that Finland’s move toward NATO was not to its liking.
“NATO expansion does not make our continent more stable and safe,” said Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, adding that Finland’s inclusion in NATO would “definitely” be seen as a threat. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Moscow would “make retaliatory steps of military-technical and other character” if Finland joins the alliance. Finland shares an 810-mile border with Russia.
But fears and condemnation of Russia are only growing as the war in Ukraine becomes ever more brutal and as evidence of atrocities committed by Russian troops mounts.
On Wednesday, Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, said the first soldier to face trial will be a 21-year-old tank commander accused of shooting and killing a civilian in a town in northern Ukraine. The soldier, Vadim Shysimarin, is in Ukrainian custody.
Shysimarin allegedly shot an unarmed 62-year-old man in Chupakhivka, a village in the northeastern region of Sumy, on Feb. 28, just four days after the invasion started. Prosecutors allege Shysimarin was fleeing Ukrainian forces with other soldiers in a stolen car when they saw the 62-year-old man on a bicycle talking on a cellphone.
Shysimarin allegedly shot the man with a Kalashnikov machine gun because he and the other Russian soldiers believed the man on the phone was telling Ukrainian forces about their whereabouts. The man was killed outside his home. Shysimarin faces a life sentence.
Evidence of Russian war crimes is growing by the day and it has become a galvanizing factor in the West’s support for Ukraine. A recent Pew Research Center poll found a growing number of Americans in support of the massive aid packages being sent to Ukraine. The United States has provided more than $13.6 billion in aid to Ukraine and Congress is on track to approve an additional $40 billion in military and humanitarian aid.
On Wednesday, CNN showed chilling footage of Russian soldiers shooting the owner of a car dealership and a 68-year-old guard in the backs after they were frisked by the soldiers. The soldiers then ransacked the car dealership, CNN reported. The soldiers’ actions were captured by security video cameras.
Ukrainian prosecutors say they have documented more than 10,700 crimes by Russian troops.
The Guardian newspaper reported Wednesday that Venediktova was preparing to try two other Russian prisoners of war who allegedly struck civilian buildings with a multiple rocket launcher near Kharkiv.
The newspaper reported that Venediktova was set to put on trial in absentia Mikhail Romanov, a Russian soldier accused of killing a man before raping his wife in a village in the Brovarsky region in March. Prosecutors said the woman was able to recognize her attacker as Romanov by a photograph on social media.
“Now we don’t know where he is – maybe he is fighting still, maybe he is on rotation in the Russian Federation, maybe he is dead,” Venediktova said, according to the Guardian. “We don’t know but we want to prosecute him in absentia.”
She added: “We want to demonstrate to these criminals that we will find them. And we will prevent the deaths of other people in other territories.”
She said her office has identified 36 other war crimes suspects, including 10 Russian soldiers suspected of torture.
Western experts, including investigators, forensic specialists and legal minds, are helping Ukraine.
Prosecutions against Ukrainian soldiers are taking place too. More than 100 Ukrainian prisoners of war had been arrested on charges of war crimes and placed in detention centers by the end of April, according to Tass, the Russian news agency, citing Yury Sirovatko, the justice minister in the Donetsk People’s Republic. It is one of two eastern Ukrainian regions that have declared their independence.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.